Heather McGowan on learning, adapting & identity in the future of work

Heather McGowan is the most thoughtful writer and speaker I follow on the future of work. She is able to connect the dots between work, culture, society and identity in a way that has captured the attention of many individuals, companies and universities around the world.

She credits much of her interdisciplinary mindset with her own University experience, saying that “every road points back to the Rhode Island School of Design.”  Contrary to how many students are now pressured to choose a professional identity, she reflected that during her educational experience, she was “not trained to be anything” and instead taught to embrace a beginner’s mind, focusing on whether or not she was asking the right questions.

She defines learning as “figuring out something you didn’t know before.”  While organizations claim to care about learning, many are not willing to embrace failure, letting people admit when wrong and be vulnerable.  She has worked with Universities to re-imagine their curriculums toa adapt to many of these changes, leading the strategic design of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce at Jefferson, and working with Becker College to craft the “Agile Mindset” curriculum.  Even though much of her focus is on helping people think about work, she believes that because the Universities massified so much, we have lost touch with a liberal arts tradition in our academies and it’s imperative to reimagine our liberal arts tradition to make it work for our modern world.

In the working world, she focuses on how we can think about learning and work in a more holistic way and often traces a lot of the challenges back to education.  She cites research from Gallup showing that: “while 74% of surveyed fifth-graders are engaged with school, just 32% of surveyed 11th-graders are engaged.”  Perhaps some of that disengagement is because people aren’t too excited about their job prospects. She worries that organizations in the short-term are still too focused on productivity, which depersonalizes the experience of work.  As work increasingly becomes specialized – she calls it “atomization” – she fears that we will increasingly only focus on “explicit knowledge” instead of the deeper tacit knowledge that makes us special.

Her advice for companies:

“If your lens on attracting talent is to create a box called the job, which is an artificial box and then figure out who best fits that box, that is defined as the rear-view mirror.  If you look out to your future, where are you going to get the best human potential, how are you going to attract it, how are you going to nurture it, how are you going to develop it?”

Heather’s career is a perfect example of the type of path and work that was not possible in the past.  Reflecting on her path she admits “this field just sort of emerged.” As her career has shifted more towards speaking, she has been able to design her life around learning.  Through her talks, she is able to get feedback and combined with her own curiosity, it helps her focus on what to learn next.

Ultimately, on the future of work, Heather remains an optimist:

I think if we focus on what humans do best…connecting to humans, and lighting the fire in a human by connecting to their motivational purpose…we’re going to see a huge boom in the future of work.

Some of my favorite articles of hers and links to learn more: